50 years of PMQs: the best moments

The best videos, including "Stalin to Mr Bean", "we saved the world" and "calm down, dear!"

This week marks 50 years since the first PMQs (Harold Macmillan vs. Hugh Gaitskell, since you ask). So, by way of celebration, here are some of the most memorable moments from the weekly joust.

Blair on Major: "weak, weak, weak"

Here, from his clashes with John Major, are two of Tony Blair's most artful put-downs. In the first clip from 25 May 1995, the young Labour leader taunts Major's inability to control his anti-European backbenchers. "There is one very big difference - I lead my party, he follows his." Major later described it in his memoirs as "the best one-liner he ever used against me".

In the second from 30 January 1997 (again concerning Europe), Blair brands Major "weak, weak, weak" for failing to impose a joint line on the euro.

Cameron to Blair: "you were the future once"

And here's the "heir to Blair" in action at his first PMQs, telling his rival "you were the future once" and reprimanding the Labour chief whip for "shouting like a child".

Cable on Brown: "Stalin to Mr Bean"

It was Andrew Turnball, the former head of the civil service, who declared in March 2007 that Gordon Brown operated with "Stalinist ruthlessness". But eight months later, after a run on Northern Rock, the loss of 25 million child benefit records and another donations scandal, the description no longer seemed so appropriate. Vince Cable, then acting leader of the Lib Dems, caught the mood when he quipped that Brown had gone "from Stalin to Mr Bean" in a matter of weeks.

Brown: "we saved the world"

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman memorably asked: "Has Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, saved the world financial system?" and answered in the affirmative. But Krugman's praise appeared to have gone to Brown's head when he told the Commons: "we saved the world". His humourless response (Blair would have quipped "we'll get round to that later") only made matters worse.

Cameron to Angela Eagle: "calm down, dear!"

Finally, from earlier this year, here's Cameron's ill-advised riposte to Angela Eagle. For an idea of how the remark went down with the Lib Dems, just contrast Nick Clegg's stony face with George Osborne's guffawing.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.